All Not Aboard! Amtrak Pulling Brake on Penn

Senator Hilary Clinton had just spent several hours on Friday, Sept. 17, touring an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York about the life and times of her predecessor, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when she and a small group of architects and urban planners took an impromptu walk upstairs to discuss, over coffee, the fate of the late Senator’s most frustratingly unfulfilled dream: the transformation of the James A. Farley Post Office into a new Penn Station.

Mrs. Clinton “talked a lot about getting Amtrak involved, to make them see it was in their best interests,” said Maura Moynihan, the late Senator’s daughter, who also attended the meeting.

Were Ms. Moynihan’s father alive today, that statement might seem absurd. After all, ever since the 1980’s, when the long-serving Senator first proposed the idea of creating a grand new rail hub across the street from the current Penn Station, the idea was always that Amtrak would become the building’s main tenant. The building was intended as the grand anchor of northeastern regional rail service—the hub that would shuttle bankers, Congressmen, students and families in and out of the city and carry them through a major retail hub, much as Union Station does in Washington, D.C. It was ludicrous to imagine the project without Amtrak.

Now, however, the national railroad service is in dire financial straits, and the company’s cost-cutting new president, David Gunn, has said he won’t pay the costs associated with the move—neither in renovation expenses nor in annual lease payments for the space.

As a result, the estimated $1 billion renovation project is facing a potentially serious budget shortfall. State development officials have vowed to find the money elsewhere and to proceed undeterred. Assuming they do, the upshot of Amtrak’s intransigence is that if and when the Farley post office reopens as Moynihan Station some five years from now, Amtrak will not have a presence in the building. Instead, the station will most likely be home to New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road. Amtrak’s passengers will have to continue funneling through Penn Station—moving through a space that The New York Times ’ new architecture critic called “one of the most dehumanizing public spaces in the city.”

So what began as Moynihan’s long-held dream of creating a grand new hub of intercity rail will instead become merely another regional commuter station. The building, which will be called Moynihan Station in honor of the late Senator’s tireless championing of the project, will be the Grand Central Terminal for New Jersey residents and Long Islanders.

“It’s certainly not what Moynihan envisioned,” said Kevin Corbett, chief operating officer of the Empire State Development Corporation, whose subsidiary, the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, is heading up the station’s development.

While there have been no final decisions made as to the tenant roster of the new station, The Observer has learned that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is expected to approve at its next board meeting a $10 million grant to New Jersey Transit to study how to begin integrating its existing tracks and infrastructure with the planned Moynihan Station.

What this means is that New Jersey Transit is making concrete plans with the Moynihan Station Development Corporation to become a paying lessee at the new station. Presumably, the LIRR will soon follow suit. What’s significant about these developments is that they will effectively formalize Amtrak’s banishment to the current Penn Station. After all, the Moynihan State Development Corporation has no intention of leaving a large amount of prime space in the building just lying around on the off chance that Amtrak decides to change its mind at some point down the line.

“The station needs to get the maximum amount of revenue out of the space,” said Mr. Corbett.

And Amtrak is unlikely to be able to come along later.

“When you structure the kind of deal you do with a prime tenant, you’re probably looking at 100 years with a 100-year option,” said Mark Yachmetz, an associate administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration, which is helping to craft the project. “So if they’re occupying the space and Amtrak later changes its mind, then Amtrak is going to have to make its case to New Jersey Transit or the LIRR.”

And as one official involved with the project put it, “The terms will probably be a lot less favorable for Amtrak in five years than they are now.”

To be fair, Amtrak doesn’t necessarily have an obviously compelling need to expand into new territory. Of the roughly 500,000 people who traffic the current Penn Station every day, Amtrak passengers only account for about 28,000 of them. The explosive growth in the rail industry that, more than anything else, is propelling this project belongs to New Jersey Transit and, to a lesser extent, the Long Island Rail Road. And given that Amtrak nearly went bankrupt last year, it’s perhaps easy to understand why Mr. Gunn feels that he can’t spare a penny to move Amtrak into more luxurious accommodations—especially since Amtrak already owns its own space at Penn Station.

“We feel it’s not in our best interests to move into a station that would increase costs while we are trying to save every dollar we can, and while we struggle to repair years of deferred maintenance on our existing physical plant,” said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black.

Then again, Mr. Gargano thinks that Mr. Gunn, in his quest to pinch pennies, is being extremely shortsighted.

Mr. Gargano said that Amtrak backed out of a 1999 agreement it made with the state to pay its share of costs for the new station.

“It’s shameful that Amtrak didn’t meet their commitments,” he said. “And Amtrak will be the losers, because their riders won’t benefit by being able to use the new station.”

Privately, some people involved with the project have expressed misgivings about Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Schumer for not leaning harder on Mr. Gunn to commit some of his agency’s budget to the program.

“People expect New York’s Senators to go to bat for New York in a good old parochial sense,” said a project backer, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating either Senator. “Clearly, neither Senator has done that yet.”

Bob Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association and a longtime backer of the project, disputed the allegation.

“They’ve done everything they can,” he said, referring to the two Senators. “They’ve met with [Amtrak’s president] in private on several occasions, but David Gunn—who’s a highly regarded, principled guy—has made it clear that he doesn’t have the resources to put into this.”

Neither senator returned calls by press time.

Money—and Terror

Amtrak’s decision to stay put has also created a shortfall in Mr. Gargano’s renovations budget for Penn Station. That issue was the first topic of conversation at Mrs. Clinton’s informal coffee session at the Museum of the City of New York last week. Sitting at the conference table with Mrs. Clinton that afternoon was a group which included Mr. Yaro, Ms. Moynihan, Robert Tierney, the chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and two architects from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the firm that designed the conversion of the neo-classical Farley building, which runs between Eighth and Ninth avenues from 31st to 33rd streets.

Mrs. Clinton, wearing a black pants suit, “opened up the discussion by saying, ‘After the Madrid bombings, my real concern is whether or not Penn Station is safe,’” Ms. Moynihan recalled. Mrs. Clinton then answered her own question: “No, it’s not.”

Mrs. Clinton was referring to the widely held belief that the ventilation systems at the current Penn Station are aging and ineffective and that, in the case of an explosion or fire on the tracks, thousands could suffocate before the pumps cleared the air.

The ventilation-system upgrade is only one small part of the $1 billion project, but perhaps no aspect of the job demands more immediate attention than this safety upgrade. It seems ironic, then, that this is the only part of the project that has yet to secure funding.

The reason is that state officials want Amtrak, which owns the tracks, to pick up $50 million of the $60 million upgrade tab. But Amtrak, which feels that the costs have nothing to do with Penn Station and everything to do with Moynihan Station, has refused to pay.

“That falls under the category of capital investments into the new [Moynihan] building, and Amtrak maintains that we can’t participate in capital costs for that project,” said Mr. Black, the Amtrak spokesman.

Mr. Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, said that he’s met with Washington lawmakers many times over the past several months to seek alternate sources of funding for the missing $50 million.

“We’re appealing to our New York delegation in Congress, and the transportation committee and subcommittee, to help us front the ventilation costs,” he said. “Obviously they’re out of session now, but we’ll resume as soon as they get back.”

Mr. Gargano is confident enough about his abilities to wangle the cash, however, that his agency is moving forward with vetting potential developers for the larger Moynihan Station project. He said that he hopes to award a contract by early January or February. While most of the Farley building’s neo-classical, Roman-style exterior will be unchanged in the redesign, the most striking new element is a soaring glass parabolic arch that will bisect the mammoth structure on an east-west axis and pour sunlight onto the building’s two main entrances, on 31st and 33rd streets between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. (The building’s traditional main entrance, the imposing stone stairway running the length of Eighth Avenue, will remain for post-office use.)

The saga of the new station’s development has been a long and torturous one, filled with false starts, dashed hopes and shifting allegiances. The original neo-classical Pennsylvania Station, designed in 1910 by McKim, Meade and White, was torn down in 1964 to make way for the current Madison Square Garden, an act that Moynihan later called the “greatest act of vandalism in the history of the city.” The razing of the building so shocked New Yorkers that, soon afterwards, they established what would become the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Right across Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden stands the Farley building, another neo-classical structure that McKim, Meade and White completed in 1914. Ever since the late 1980’s, according to his daughter, Moynihan dreamed of converting the post office to rail use. It wasn’t until 1993, however, that Amtrak first unveiled a design for the project. For the next decade, a group of true believers led by Moynihan mounted an uphill battle to secure the political will and economic allocations needed to make the project a reality.

In 1999, the late Senator proudly exclaimed: “It’s done. Excelsior!”

Of course, it wasn’t done in 1999. The U.S. Postal Service had agreed to move out of about half of the building, but in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with one of its downtown facilities badly damaged, the service decided that it might need the Farley space after all. However, by 2002 development officials got the Postal Service to agree to sell the building almost in its entirety to the state, and one of the last remaining major obstacles was finally gone.

But still the project dragged on, and this summer a House committee, sensing terminal inertia, moved to strip the project of $40 million in funding and reallocate the money elsewhere. To this day, it isn’t known who exactly was responsible for that decision, but the action prompted Mr. Gargano, Mr. Corbett, Mr. Yaro of the R.P.A., Peg Breen of the private Landmarks Conservancy, along with a host of other project backers, to stage a series of meetings with Washington lawmakers to make sure the money gets put back. Mr. Gargano said he’s satisfied that the lobbying effort was successful, and that the money will find its way back to the project when that particular budget item comes up for a formal vote.

Less certain, however, is the source of the money for the ventilation-systems upgrade that Mr. Gargano still needs to gin up. “We need $50 million for the ventilation,” he said, “but keep in mind that we have 90 percent of the money for this project.”

Perhaps—but this wouldn’t be the first time that the Moynihan Station project got to the one-yard line, only to find itself pushed back to the 50.